The Music of Lives

Mingus_Lullaby“I play or write me the way I feel through jazz, or whatever,” the late bassist and pianist Charles Mingus wrote in a 1955 open letter to trumpeter Miles Davis. “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don’t expect him to dig my music, and I would begin to worry about my writing if such a person began to really like it. My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.”

My thoughts continually went to that passage as I read, A Mingus Lullaby, Toronto poet  Dane Swan‘s latest collection. The perceptive works are vibrant with anger, good and evil, and the cadences of progressive jazz. They are not what an average reader might expect of “poetry.” That is why those who love poetry, people, passion, personalities, and protest will find the March 1 release from Guernica Editions to be a treat worthy of the $20 price.

As the Mingus quote states, Swan gives reader a collection crammed with raw emotional power. It is as if the poems get nose to nose with readers and scream “Look!”  The poet wants readers to see the greatness that the last jazz icon and civil rights leader harbored.

Admittedly, that kind of forced dialogue can intimidate those who look for poems to “escape reality.” Swan channels the spirit of the jazz legend who died in 1979 at age 56, as a means to reveal himself. The best part is the author, like Mingus, does not shrink from truth.

The experience begins in “Epitaph 10,” where the writer wrestles identity:

 My man Charles, your autobiography jumps from first person to third.

 Got me wondering who I am.

Is this Dane or Mingus?
Is this Dane as Dane, playing Mingus?
Or is this Dane, as Dane in the role of Dane inspired by Mingus?

The writer riffs Mingus’ insistence that he was possessed by a three-part identity:

One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two.
The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked.
Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t – he goes back inside himself.

Mingus claimed to be a conflicted and tortured spirit whose capped emotions built and built, and jazz allowed the release. In A Mingus Lullaby Swan’s wordplay allows him to speak to readers as he slides through different voices, which the poet describes in “Epitaph 6” – emotionless observer, passionate lover, manic loose cannon. At the same time, readers will find the author is not shy when the personalities mix. For example, in  “Objectors,” readers hear hints of the emotionless observer and passionate lover:

They look like adolescent weaklings.
So fragile, you imagine
the bullied bullied them;
their strength – immeasurable.

Could confuse them for children.
More man than us,
have been couriers of imperialism, death,
decided to defend life.

One admits
he ended numerous existences.
Innocent civilians
haunt dreams.

They look like children
but are men
trying to skip double-dutch
with children.

The same comes through in a veiled commentary on the riots at Toronto’s G20 Summit, which the poem, “26.06.2010,” sums as “A protest of 30,000 destroyed by 200 with violent intent.” The poem observes:

Violence isn’t anarchy;
it’s organized failure.
None of this will lead to change.

The manic loose cannon is evident in a number of the poems. In “Resuscitation,” the pathos takes readers into the soul of a Black Canada (oddly resonant with the United States) and wields cultural self-analysis like a bat:

I balance my heart on the edge of razor blades
trying not to pierce my aorta.

(my heart bleeds)

I’m a black nigga, immigrant nigga, legal problems nigga. I’m everything I fight; fucking stereotype. Looking for a hot-forty-year-old, president of a publishing company. Whisk me to your manor with Raptors TV; shelves stacked: Greek philosophy, Tales of Anansi, old soul records, my favorite spoken word CD by Garmamie.

(my heart bleeds)

Sick of niggas using the word nigga lightly. Of niggas who think stupidity is pretty. Got C’s in school. Other kids hid comic books between text books, I hid my copy of “The Egyptian Book of the Dead.” Failed math studying architecture – towers from before ancient times in the Horn of Africa. Got an A minus in music ’cause that teacher didn’t like me.

(my heart bleeds)

My anger management coach, slowly, surely convinces me.
Couldn’t do what I do. Suggests a minor augmentation towards
conformity – we are in a white society. I agree. No more Afro.

(my heart bleeds)

At the end, in “Epitaph 14,” Swan’s Lullaby bids Mingus a subtle “sleep well”:

Dizzy called you a great administrator.
I never knew a secretary could look so ugly,
or sound so sweet in quadraphonic sound.

 

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VGwrites

I am a storyteller, author, editor, blogger, and retired university professor of Creative Writing. Now in Central Florida, I still teach every now and then, but write most of the time. Most recently, I poetry was featured in Mo Joe The Anthology. My last book, 10 Stories Down, a poetry collection published in September 2011, is inspired by several long-term stays in Beijing. Life and Other Things I Know: Poems, Essays and Short Stories (Elephant Eye Press, 1999), was the first. Throughout the years, the list expanded to include: African American Children's Stories: A Treasury of Tradition and Pride, Grandma Loves You: My First Treasury, African American Stories: My First Treasury, Like A Dry Land: A Soul's Journey through the Middle East and contributions to Take Two, They're Small, an anthology of poems, memoir, essay and fiction on food. My poetry, fiction and essays have also appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, Washington Living, Upstate New Yorker, The Southern Quarterly, Reporter Magazine, Drylongso, Fyah, MentalSatin, Pinnacle Hill Review, Invisible Universe, Bridges, Ishmael Reed's Konch Magazine, New Verse News, and UpandComing Magazine.

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